Skip to main content

The dos and don’ts of caring for your bonsai tree

Basic bonsai tree care tips and tricks

A ficus bonsai tree in a brown pot on a table.
BayCengiz / Pixabay

Bonsai trees are, by design, relaxing and beautiful to look at. Thanks to the internet and international shipping, bonsai trees are becoming more and more popular in America, and many gardeners are interested in bringing one of these stunning works of living art home. Bonsai trees need light, water, and fertilizer like any other plant, but their shape and size also need to be maintained. If you plan on growing your own bonsai tree, there are a few things you’ll need to know first. Here is your guide to the basics of bonsai.

A pine bonsai tree in a brown pot.
LUCA_Finardi / Pixabay

What is bonsai?

Bonsai is the traditional Japanese art of growing miniature trees. A bonsai tree is any small tree grown in a shallow pot or dish that is trained to grow in a way that resembles a fully grown tree. You can think of bonsai almost like a living sculpture, and like any other art form, there are certain conventions and traditions that bonsai artists follow.

Following these conventions, bonsai trees are meant to mimic the growth patterns of full-size trees. They aren’t symmetrical, and their designs are often inspired by the factors that shape trees in the wild. There are several categories, called bonsai styles, that bonsai trees can fall into. These styles define the shape and points of inspiration for the bonsai tree. For example, the slanting style draws inspiration from trees that have been skewed by strong wind, like you might find on a cliff. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has a list of the five basic styles, as well as several modern variations and example photos to go along with them.

An old bonsai tree in the slanting style.
scartmyart / Pixabay

Sourcing and starting your bonsai tree

Since bonsai trees can be any tree variety capable of surviving in miniature form, you have plenty of options. Pines, spruces, and cypress trees are among the most popular. You can also opt for flowering shrubs and trees, such as azaleas and wisterias, and even fruit-bearing trees, such as apples!

After you’ve decided what type of bonsai you want to grow, you can choose how you want to begin your bonsai. The easiest way to start is with a kit or pre-grown bonsai. You can find these in some gardening stores or nurseries, as well as online. Starting this way is faster, as you won’t have to wait for the tree to mature, and kits come with further instructions and supplies to help you get started.

You can also start your bonsai from a cutting, seedling, or seed. Keep in mind that this takes much longer and is more difficult than starting with a mature bonsai. It will be a few years before your seedling will be ready to start shaping. While starting from a young plant can be rewarding, it is also a massive time commitment.

A bonsai tree growing red berries
IlonaBurschl / Pixabay

Styling your bonsai tree

Styling your bonsai is the process of carefully pruning and shaping the branches and trunk of the tree to achieve and maintain the desired design. Rather than a single step in growing your bonsai tree, think of styling as multiple tasks to add to your regular care routine.

Pruning a bonsai tree is similar to pruning any other tree or shrub. A few times per year, cut branches that are outgrowing your bonsai, as well as those growing in the wrong location for the design. You may need to invest in smaller pruning shears, but if you have trees with particularly small branches, you can remove them by hand.

Wiring means using wires to direct the shape and direction of branches. This is done by wrapping wire around the branch and trunk, then bending the branch into position. The wire supports the branch and holds it in place until the branch can keep its shape. Check the wires daily and remove them if they begin cutting into the branch. Bonsais can grow quickly, and you don’t want the branch to grow around the wire. Not only will this look unappealing, but the open lacerations leave your bonsai tree vulnerable to pests and diseases.

A jade plant bonsai being wired into shape
robbrownaustralia / Pixabay

Bonsai tree care

In addition to styling your tree, you’ll need to ensure it has plenty of water, fertilizer, and sunlight. Make sure the pot your tree is in has plenty of drainage holes. Since bonsai grows in shallow pots, drainage is important to prevent overwatering. They also need more frequent waterings and fertilizer applications for this reason. Keep the soil moist but not soggy, and fertilize your bonsai tree regularly during spring and summer. You can find bonsai-specific fertilizer online or in gardening supply stores.

Your bonsai’s light needs depend on the type of tree you’re growing. Most commonly used species prefer bright indirect light and warm temperatures, but some can adapt to low lighting. The potential pests will vary depending on your tree as well. While indoor bonsai are less likely to see pest damage, keep an eye on your outdoor bonsai. Apply an organic pest repellent like neem oil as a precaution if you notice increased pest activity.

Creating and maintaining a beautiful bonsai tree can be tricky at first, but with practice and patience, anyone can learn this art form. Now that you have a grasp of the basic steps, you’re ready to start looking for your first bonsai tree. As your tree grows, so will you, and soon, you’ll be ready to branch out into more complicated techniques!

Editors' Recommendations

Cayla Leonard
Cayla Leonard is a writer from North Carolina who is passionate about plants.  She enjoys reading and writing fiction and…
Now that it’s more common, here’s how to care for your sought-after Thai Constellation Monstera
How to grow one of these coveted houseplants
Thai Constellation Monstera

During the early pandemic days, the Thai Constellation Monstera was one of the most coveted cultivars of the humble Monstera deliciosa. Now, houseplant enthusiasts can more readily find this striking plant at lower costs, whether it's at a grocery store or a local nursery. Despite its gaining popularity, you might still have questions about the Thai Constellation Monstera plant. Not to worry — here's all that you need to know about what this plant is and how you can grow it in your lush indoor garden.

What is the Thai Constellation Monstera, and what makes it so special?
Along with the Monstera deliciosa's eye-catching fenestrations, the Thai Constellation plant features gorgeous mottled leaves with a touch of creamy variegation. The Thai Constellation cultivar is relatively difficult to grow, which was why it was such a rare and expensive plant for so long — just a few years ago, a handful of cuttings could go for hundreds of dollars.

Read more
Here’s how to care for your aloe vera plant to reap its soothing benefits
Tips on watering, pruning, and propagating your aloe vera plant
Aloe vera pups

Of the hundreds of plants in the aloe genus, aloe vera probably has the most established reputation as a powerhouse personal care ingredient. The plant is best known for its versatile leaf gel, which you can use to soothe scrapes, burns, and other minor irritations. As a succulent, it’s relatively easy to grow and maintain, but there are things you should know about it to give it the best care possible. Ahead, we’ve gathered everything you need to know about this healing desert marvel — with these tips, you'll be ready to harvest it in no time.

What you need to know about the aloe vera plant
Aloe often grows in a rosette form — many varieties are spineless, but some have spines and teeth along their fleshy, upright leaves. They can push out tubular red, orange, or yellow flowers outside during the growing season. The most common variety is aloe barbadensis, or aloe vera. Aloe vera is often found in food, drinks, medicine, and personal care items — that's right, it's in beverages as well. It features dagger-like, fleshy green leaves with serrated edges, and you can grow aloe vera directly in the ground or containers. The leaves can grow up to two feet long and the plant, when grown outside, can sometimes push out a yellow flower stalk up to three feet tall.

Read more
A complete money tree care guide
Tips and tricks to help your money tree thrive
Several houseplants including a money tree and a cactus on a window sill

If your home or office is in need of a new small tree, then the beautiful money tree, also known as the Guiana chestnut, might be the perfect choice. Pachira aquatica is a small tree native to Central and South America, where it is used as a symbol of good financial luck and prosperity. Whether you’re hoping for some good luck or just like the way it looks, money trees make excellent houseplants. Additionally, money tree care is easy to follow. This simple guide will explain everything you need to know to keep your new money tree happy and healthy.

Where and how to plant your money tree
If your money tree is outdoors, then make sure it has plenty of room. They can get up to 60 feet tall if left to their own devices, so avoid planting yours beneath any overhangs, trees, or power lines. Indoor money trees, however, will stay much smaller, typically growing only a few feet tall.

Read more